Notes from The Professor

March 7, 2013

X: the nameless

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 3:08 pm
Tags: , , ,

I have written many times about memorable students — those whose particular talents or trevails left an indelible impression on me. But the truth is, I have forgotten far more students than I remember.

I have been teaching at community colleges since 1999, full time since 2004. Very rough math puts the number of students I’ve had in composition classes well over 3000. I won’t even start to add up the number of pages of essays read, grades calculated, excuses heard, or emails answered. The mind reels.

I’ve also mentioned before how frequently I run into students around town, in malls, restaurants, and even a tattoo parlor. Recently, I met three in a 24 hour period — and I didn’t remember a single one of them. One waited on me in a book store. One poured me a Jim Beam on the rocks. One served me dinner. Other than a vague suspicion that they all must have been former students, I had no idea who they were.

I have started to recognize the signs that someone who I think is a total stranger isn’t: an unusually friendly greeting followed by a more-than-perfunctory inquiry about how things are going. If I’m lucky, they’ll ask me if I’m still teaching, so at least I’ll be certain that they are, in fact, former students and not just making conversation. This will open the door for me to fake my way through a canned conversation (“Still in school?” “How are your classes?” “How do you like your new [job, school, career]?”) without revealing my ignorance.

Lately I find that even if I do remember them (if only just their faces), I have no idea how long it’s been since they were in my class, which class they took, how they did, or anything else. And these are people who, in their memoir essays, confess some pretty specific and personal stuff. I’ve had people suffer deaths in the family, undergo chemotherapy, have babies, and reach all manner of milestones on my watch, but months later, chances are pretty good I will have forgotten all but the most extreme cases.

I wonder how often I run into students who recognize me but don’t let on, either hoping I will have forgotten their poor performance or harboring such ill will towards me they don’t want to be remembered. One thing I learned the first week teaching: a whole lot of people hate English classes. I may have made an enemy or two along the way.

There’s a guy who works in the produce section of the grocery store where I do most of my shopping. He was in my research class years ago. He was a sweet kid, but he struggled to get through the course with a C. I still remember his name, and the first couple of times I ran into him (then a bagger) at the store, we greeted each other with a smile. But that was eight or nine years ago. He’s still there. Now, when we see each other, there is a strange, tacit understanding that we do not acknowledge our previous relationship. It’s as though college is something he tried on for size but didn’t suit him. I have written pretty vehemently about the myth that college is for everyone. He’s a perfect example of someone for whom post secondary school wasn’t a good fit, but who is advancing in a steady job and probably making a decent living. Still, I sense that he is embarrassed not to have “moved on.”

Probably even more so than university professors, I meet students at a time of transition. They haven’t just come to school because it’s the next step after high school, but to make a life change: a new career, a new path, a fresh start, something “more” for their families. Did that kid say to himself “I’m not going to work at Kroger for the rest of my life,” and decide to take some classes, or did someone else expect it of him? Is he happy where he is? Do I remind him of what he didn’t finish?

I’m probably just projecting again. Most likely, he has just forgotten me, as I have so many.

July 5, 2012

William: the disappeared

I read the obituaries every day. It’s a habit that started when I was in my early twenties, mostly out of morbid curiosity, and continues to this day for more practical purposes. I scan the names, then the ages, pausing over those who seem familiar or particularly untimely. Today, I came across one that was both.

William was in my class several years ago…really, when I say that it all runs together after a few years, I mean it. I have no idea how long it’s been. Maybe 2, maybe 5. I have thought about writing about him before because he was someone who stayed with me, but I didn’t know much about him.

Judging from the age printed in today’s obituary, he must have been in his late twenties when he was in my class. What I remember most is that he was polite, respectful, and extremely well-spoken. And he had a gentleness about him: a soft voice, a grace of movement. He was eager to please and eager to learn. I liked him right away.

In his introductory writing sample, he confessed to a difficult past. I don’t remember the details, only that he had done time in prison, a fact that seemed utterly at odds with my impression of him. I wondered how such a gentle soul would survive that environment — but then, it may be that he was not so gentle as all that to have wound up there to begin with.

At any rate, he was nervous about school, and I was eager to help him. I saw in him a genuine desire to do better. He showed me pictures of his kids — told me he owed it to them to do better.

His first paper, the dreaded memoir essay, was about his father. Or was it his step father? Again, I don’t remember. But I do recall that he talked about the scar on his back: a triangle seared there by an iron, applied as a means of discipline. He had cigarette burns on his forearms, too. He wrote about being angry as a young man and about learning to let go of the past — about forgiveness and separating the boy from the man. When I handed it back to him, I told him how much he had to be proud of. There were a lot of other things I would have liked to have said, but they hung in the air, too difficult or too personal to say in class. He nodded and thanked me. I hope he understood.

For about the first half of the quarter, William did just fine, but then he started to miss class. At first, he was good about keeping me informed of what was going on: his daughter was sick, he had a meeting with his probation officer, his grandmother needed help, etc.. But then he fell behind, and even the excuses came at longer intervals. I emailed him — told him he could still make up the work if he’d come meet with me. But eventually, he disappeared. This is not unusual, but it made me particularly sad in his case. I believed in him. I wanted him to win.

I’m not sure I would have remembered his name out of context, but because his obituary ran with a picture, I did. It said that he died in his sleep. I have no idea what that means. Did he overdose? (I didn’t remember whether or not he referred to drug use in his past.) Had he been ill? (No mention of this in the obit.) Was it just one of those times when an aneurism ruptures or a heart explodes or the body cruelly betrays an otherwise perfectly healthy person? There is no way to know.

Reading through the obituary, there are no clues. He is survived by his parents (no mention of a step father — maybe I just wished that) and his three children. It says that he attended college, but doesn’t mention whether he graduated. That’s the least of what I’ll never know about William.

June 16, 2012

Vince: the invisible

Early each term, I let my students in on a little secret: some of the writing tasks assigned in college are about as far from any real-world application as can be. Most often in the real world, one person writes for an audience of many — whether it’s a novel, a letter to the editor, or a business plan. But in college, the many write for the few — dozens of papers pile up for an audience of one. And the “one” for whom it’s intended is going to judge it. How terrifying.

I try to mitigate the horrors inherent in this scenario by trying to convince students that their audience is their classmates. I have them peer edit before they submit their work for a grade. I encourage them to rewrite and I reward revision. But ultimately, my little show doesn’t work. The fact that I deliberately eschew red ink does little to ease their anxiety, my purple pen just another little fake-out that they see quickly see right through. They are the students, and I give the grades.

There’s a strange kind of intimacy in teaching composition, particularly the personal narrative. Because the subject of their essays is their experience, (as opposed to, say, WWII or the life cycle of a cell), we comp teachers learn things about our students that most of their teachers in other disciplines will never know.

Online classes add another odd dimension to this intimacy, as students share their work with each other but may never see one another face to face. When I grade their papers, I don’t have a face to put with the name in the online dropbox. Unless I happen to look up their pictures on my electronic roster, which I seldom do, my online students exist for me almost entirely in text.

So, despite the fact that I wouldn’t know him if I passed him in the hallway, I do know a few things about Vince:

In his first paper, he wrote about the day his mom left when he was fifteen. And the day his dad, overwhelmed with his own grief and rage, left, too — three days later. He wrote about getting himself up to go to school every day. About being alone at night. About living on Ramen noodles and peanut butter. About getting a job to pay the rent, and trying to stay in school. About wearing clothes that were too small, because he was still growing and could not afford new ones. About finally dropping out and winding up getting evicted anyway. About making a life for himself since then. About his own family and his devotion to his kids.

By the end of his paper, I was sobbing. It certainly wasn’t the first time a narrative essay had moved me to tears (the ones about putting dogs to sleep get me every time) but this was one of the few that got under my skin. It was completely raw and matter of fact. And it made me angry: at his mother for her faithlessness, and at his father for indulging his own pain at the expense of his son. I thought about it constantly for days after I read it. I think about it, still.

Even though nothing in the personal narrative assignment requires students to write about something serious, it does ask them to write about something significant and meaningful, so certain topics emerge. In our more cynical moments, my colleageus and I refer to these as the “dying-grandparent-and-car-crash papers.” An account of grandpa’s funeral titled “The Worse [sic] Day of My Life” that is riddled with comma splices can cause a beleaguered teacher’s heart to harden rather than empathize. But then there’s a paper like Vince’s that cracks it wide open again.

Some of my colleagues have stopped assigning personal narratives in Comp I. One says she just can’t bear it — it’s just too hard to read these tales of hardship and trevail that inevitably bubble up from students’ psyches. One says he doesn’t see the point. Freshman comp is supposed to prepare students for the rest of college, and it’s not as though they are ever going to be required to use narrative writing again. It’s just not practical, he reasons. I can’t really argue with that.

But at the end of the quarter, when students write about their experiences in the class, they invariably say that the personal narrative was their favorite piece to write. Often, it is also their best. Many say that writing it was therapeutic. Some say it helped them work something out. One student came to my office two years after she’d graduated asking if I still had a paper she’d written about her dad; he had died recently, and she wanted to read from it at his memorial service. I’m not sure how practical the assignment is, or even how well it prepares them for future classes, but somehow, it seems important.

In Vince’s case, writing his story allowed him to sort out what had been taken from him and see what he had made from the ashes of his childhood. It made a record of how he became the husband and father he is today — something he could point to and say, “Look what happened to me. Look what I did anyway. Look at me now.”

I don’t remember what grade Vince got on that paper. I don’t know if he tells people about his childhood, or whether he keeps it to himself. I don’t know what he looks like. In fact, I don’t even remember his real name.

At today’s commencement ceremony, over 1000 names were called. I’m sure there were dozens of my former students in that sea of black robes. After ten years, their names all start to sound alike, and their faces are a blur from where we are seated. But their stories, I remember.

April 24, 2012

Uma: the felon

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 8:57 pm
Tags: , , , ,

My college prides itself on the motto, “Find a need and endeavor to meet it.” We all proudly embrace the notion that everyone deserves a college eduation, and we can provide it. I’ve written many times about the obstacles to that optimistic view: about death and illness and addiction and the myriad other complications that delay or defeat students. I’ve written about whether or not college is for everyone. I’ve even written about a student who did everything right but still could not get a job once he graduated. But what I had never encountered was a student who has done everything right but who can’t get a job at our very own institution.

That is, until I met Uma.

She was not a student of mine, but one I met through a campus organization. If I sound vague about the specifics, it’s because I’m changing names and leaving out details that would identify her for reasons that will soon become clear.

At any rate, the minute I met her I was impressed. She was punctual, self-assured, well-spoken and capable. She had a 3.8 GPA and was the recipient of numerous honors and scholarships. And she had just been denied a work study job for which she was more than qualified because she also happened to be a felon.

She shared this with me the first time I met her, although she asked me to keep it confidential. I was not in a position to discriminate against her because of it, but she had already learned the hard way that others were. She told me the outline of her past: an accessory charge when she was eighteen. Time in prison, followed by difficulty steering clear of trouble for the first few years after her release. But that was ten years ago. Since that time, she has kept her nose and her record clean, has earned one Associates degree, and is working on her second. She’s had a couple of very good jobs and has excellent references. You’d think she’d be a shoo in for work study.

I don’t pretend to understand all of the ins and outs of financial aid, (it is a great luxury that I don’t have to know much about it from my end) but suffice it to say that there are several ways to earn it. There are Pell grants, federal student loans, and federal work study. Uma qualified for the latter, and when she logged in to her financial aid account, she could see the chunk of money that awaited her; all she had to do was nail down a job on campus. Once the aid money is deposited into those three buckets, there’s no way to move it around. It never occurred to her that her own institution would bar her from access to money that the federal government had earmarked for her education.

So, she applied for work study jobs. Based on her great resume, she was granted interviews for nearly every one that she applied for. Several offers came her way — until the background check kicked in and the offers were withdrawn one by one. However, one potential employer (the supervisor in the department that was a perfect fit for her skills) offered to go to bat for her. He was not concerned about her past. The job was not one that would involve handling money or student records or anything where her trustworthiness would be called into question. She was the very best candidate for the job.

But his appeal fell on deaf ears. The human resources department, the campus ombudsman, every layer of bureaucracy had the same answer: “It’s college policy. We do not hire felons. Ever.”

I know there are very good reasons employers have these policies in place. In an economy where jobs are scarce, shouldn’t only the most trustworthy people get them? And should someone who has shown herself to have exercised poor judgment be put in a position of trust? And doesn’t employing people with known criminal histories expose the employer to unnecessary risk and vulnerability? These are tough questions. The simplest way to answer them is to make a sweeping general policy.

But I’d argue that a public institution that claims to be a place where anyone can get a start, or even better, start over, should not make such sweeping policies.

As instructors, we are asked to do everything we can to help students succeed. We are encouraged — sometimes tacitly and sometimes explicitly, sometimes even by people in suits — not to let carved-in-stone policy on our syllabi get in the way of a student’s success. We are not asked to remove obstacles, but to help students navigate them. Sometimes that means giving them a boost, like not counting their fourth absence against their final grade when their kids get sick for the third time in two weeks, or perhaps accepting a late paper when there are extenuating circumstances. We have policies, but we have the freedom — sometimes the obligation, as educators — to apply them in the broader context of the student’s education. Personally, I see a big difference between someone who habitually sleeps through his alarm clock because he was playing Call of Duty until 3am, and someone who is late because he’s coming straight to class from third shift and sometimes gets held up.

Making exceptions is hard. It raises questions of fairness and consistency. In many ways, my job would be infinitely easier if I could traffic only in absolutes. But even the institution has safety nets for underperforming students. We have a system of “early alerts” that we send when a student stops attending or falls behind so that counselors can intervene and increase the chances that student will stay the course. If we dealt only in hard policy, why have such a system? Why not say, “Miss so many class and so many assignments, and you fail. Period. We don’t care why. We don’t care what your personal circumstances are. You’re out.”

But we don’t say this — or at least, we don’t say it until we have ascertained that the student in question is not interested or invested in their own success, or is not willing to meet us more than halfway. In general, we don’t give up until they do. On good days, I feel good about my college and my part in achieving its mission.

But when I think of Uma’s situation, it makes me feel cynical. If, as an institution, we care about individual students, their circumstances and challenges, and their individual successes, why would we say to someone like her, “We will take your tuition money. We will teach you what you need to know. We will give you the skills to succeed in the workforce. But we won’t hire you. Not now, as a work study student. Not ever. We care more about what you did when you were 18 than what you have done since. You may be the best candidate for the job, but we are too chicken to make an exception to our policy, because look at the can of worms that would open up. We don’t like worms. Sometimes they give us legal trouble. We care about enrollment and retention because numbers matter, not because you matter. We can’t be flexible so you can get the money that the federal government has authorized you to work for. And for heaven’s sake, once we grant you a degree and you are a number in the “plus” column, don’t ask us for a job.”

I know, I know. I’m putting words into a metaphorical mouth. I get ranty when I’m frustrated.

I’m not suggesting that we fling our doors wide to felons of all stripes. I’m not suggesting that felony status not be a consideration when choosing whether or not to hire anyone. However, in a case like Uma’s, when the supervisor in a position to hire her is willing to take a chance, and when she is by far the best qualified candidate for the job, there should be some mechanism by which to petition for an exception. It’s not unprecedented, not even in higher education. In fact, Uma worked at a nearby University until her position was eliminated, and she has a glowing recommendation from them. Another local college states clearly in its HR policy that felony status “may” be a reason to disqualify an applicant — which also implies that in some cases, it may not. And then there’s the federal government, which gave her the work study money in the first place. Not even they are willing to make a blanket exclusion because of her record.

Of course, the argument might be made that felons are dangerous. But if that is true, why is it okay for one to sit next to you in class, but not to answer the phones in the admissions office or testing center? And in a state that is currently entertaining legislation to expand the rights of people carrying concealed weapons to allow them onto college campuses, can we really say that we are concerned about safety? (Oh, right. Those people are going to use guns to protect themselves. Never mind. That’s another rant.)

Many will argue that when one commits a crime, they forfeit their rights, and any discrimination that results down the road — whether in the short or long term — is a result of their own bad choices. On paper, that seems reasonable in many cases. That’s why we put people in jail for life. But if a person serves her time and upon her release, decides to better herself, shouldn’t the very place she comes to do that — a community college — give her a chance? And if we don’t, aren’t we then party to relegating her to menial jobs or the welfare rolls? If she wanted to, Uma once told me, she could take her financial aid money, buy a “package,” and make enough money selling drugs to finance her education and then some. She knows how to do this because she has seen people do it. She is surrounded by people who have resorted to dealing because doors kept slamming in their faces. But Uma is determined, now that she has another chance, to do it right, even though, without the work study money, she can barely make ends meet.

Recently, my campus hosted an author for a series of talks and events. He had written a memoir about his 40+ year incarceration for killing a man, a crime he admits to committing when he was 18 years old. While serving time for second degree murder, he helped to reform the prison system. He studied the law. He started a prison newspaper. He read everything he could get his hands on. He befriended the warden. And finally, after over 40 years, he had his sentence reduced to manslaughter after proving that the jury (all white men), indeed, the entire legal system, had been biased against him. His life sentence was commuted, and he is a free man.

We hosted him, we dined with him, we heard him speak. We held him up in front of at-risk students as an example of how anyone can rise above the most desperate circumstance, as a person who is not letting his history define him. Yes, a felon can write a memoir, win an international literary award, and be an inspiration to our students, but if he asked us for a job, we would not hire him. No, sir.

Uma is trying to get it right this time. She is determined and sassy and smart. And she is pissed that she is constantly swimming against the tide to claim a new future for herself. I’m not suggesting that anyone jump in to save her, but the least we can do is throw her a life preserver. She has a need. We should endeavor to meet it, at least halfway.

February 22, 2012

Tim: the displaced

My little rustbelt city has been hit hard by the recession. When I started teaching community college in the early aughts, very few of my full-time students were over 25. Now, there are displaced workers in every section of every class I teach. Many of them haven’t set foot in a classroom in well over twenty years. They have been set adrift from manufacturing jobs and laid off from shrinking companies. They are down, but not out.

Tim was an electrician in a manufacturing facility for thirty years before he was laid off the day before Thanksgiving 2008, when his company was purchased by a Chinese corporation. Even though his union contract guaranteed him severance, the new owners kept enough people around to fire up one production line every now and then until the contract expired, thus circumventing their obligation to the 120+ workers they had displaced. He was, for the first time in over 30 years, unemployed and without a paycheck.

Undaunted, he filed for unemployment and soon enrolled in school. He showed up in my English class at the end of his first year, having breezed through the first two quarters of our composition sequence in short order. He took the “hard” classes first: Math and English–subjects he hadn’t taken since high school.

He sat at the back of my classroom, a big guy with a shock of graying hair and a goatee. He wore jeans an army jacket just like a good college student should. While he was quiet at first, it wasn’t long before he started to distinguish himself, both in class discussions and in his writing. He had a poet’s ear for phrasing, and was a sensitive and appreciative reader. His papers were a pleasure to read. And although the math classes nearly kicked his butt, he started to see the power of mathematics in engineering. Going back to school, he told me, was harder than any job he’d ever had.

During his second year, he stopped by my office now and then to say hi, or to show me pictures of his new grandchild. To my delight, he said going back to school had kindled a love of writing, and he continued to do so, both for classes and for fun. When he graduated, he was in the top 3% of his class. He had made the most of his second chance at an education; he never missed a class, and the one tiny blotch on his otherwise perfect academic record was a single B in a math class that he just couldn’t quite beat. By all measures, certainly by the college’s metrics, he was the perfect “completer,” the “success” referred to on our marketing materials. Surely, his spanking new Associate’s Degree in Operations Technology had given him the skills and the resume necessary to compete in this job market. Surely the two years he’d spent in school would have been time for the economy to recover.

Tim and his family had managed to make ends meet while he was in school, thanks to a number of programs designed especially for people like him. He had done everything in lockstep: from filing for benefits, to enrolling in school, to completing every class successfully and on time, to graduating with honors. His TAA benefits (the Trade Adjustment Assistance benefits designed to help those who became unemployed due to the impact of international trade) kicked in exactly two weeks before he graduated. The minute he did so, the benefits dried up.

Over the next six months, he sent out literally hundreds of resumes, which resulted in a handful of interviews. Each of those, after seeming to go well, led to weeks of waiting, often for no response at all. With a resume and academic record like his, it’s hard to believe that his age didn’t have something to do with the lack of offers, but of course, no one says that. At first he applied for management jobs, but after a few months, he had to lower the bar.

Finally, in January, Tim was offered a job more than 45 miles from his home. In a manufacturing facility. Doing a job that he was qualified to do the day he was laid off over three years ago.

But it’s a job, and he’s happy to have it. Even with his wife’s income, things had started to get tight, and he needed to work. He was close to taking a job at a Home Depot or the like, just to make ends meet. And there may be an opportunity for advancement from his hourly union job to management. It’s not an easy leap to make, but it’s possible. I have my fingers crossed for him.

Still, it’s hard from where I sit not to wonder if the two years he spent in school did him any good at all. Our students, our state, and our President look to community colleges to retrain the workforce for bigger and better things.

But no one anticipated that the recovery would take as long as it has. In 2008, the idea of taking 2 years to go to school while the economy turned around seemed reasonable. That it’s taken closer to four was harder to predict. In this morning’s paper was an article about the mini manufacturing boom in Ohio, but they are not the high-tech manufacturing jobs Tim trained for. The tremendous optimism and hard work that accompanied his journey into academia must be hard for him to remember at the end of a long day. In fact, when I asked him if he wouldn’t like to tell his own story, he said:

“I will always continue to write, but for the near future I have to pour my heart and soul into this job to establish a foothold and maybe then I can advance. For the foreseeable future I am looking at lots of overtime, night shifts and a 97 mile round trip drive daily. As you can imagine, by the time I get home, I feel like a bird with no song in me.”

I like to think we did right by him, but there’s a part of me that feels like we’re making false promises to students like Tim when we say their education will lead to a brighter future. Deep down I know education is valuable for its own sake and not just as a means to an end. When asked if he would do it again, Tim said he wouldn’t have traded the second chance at a degree for anything. Discovering a facility with words, the power of mathematics, and having the satisfaction of exceeding one’s own expectations are all benefits that none of our institutional metrics can quantify. For now, that will have to be enough.

January 4, 2012

Stevie: the Marine

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 2:57 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

This is an Air Force town, so I have quite a few veterans in my classes: some have just finished their service, some have retired and are retraining for their second careers, and one (that I know of) was forced out of service by DADT. Almost without exception, they are great students. They are punctual, they don’t make excuses, and they don’t like bullshit.

Stevie, a Marine fresh out of the corps, was particularly intolerant of the latter — which is sort of funny given that he was full of it. He looked like a recruiting poster for the USMC: square jaw, high cheekbones, skin that looked like it had been buffed to a high gloss, a flat top you could balance a book on, and a Clint Eastwood squint. He wasn’t particularly big or tall, but he carried himself with a sort of puffed up machismo that made him seem bigger than he was. I always thought the diminutive ending of his name was funny–a bit out of sync with his tough-guy exterior. Not Steven, not Steve, but Stevie.

Not shockingly, he was a rabid conservative. He was in my class during W’s second term; it was primary season for the 2008 election. He was a Fred Thompson guy.

“Fred Thompson, Stevie? Really?” I’d say, and he would fire back with a joke about Hillary’s pantsuits. He would goad me about gun control; I’d counter with a jab about corporate greed. It was good natured ribbing, for the most part.

I appreciated the fact that Stevie (unlike some of his younger, more timid classmates) always knew exactly what he wanted to write about: global warming, the Patriot Act, the war in Iraq, the tax code. And he always knew where he stood: firmly on the right of everything. I’ve written before about the struggle to be objective when grading writing. It is hard enough to put aside my own biases about Cracker Barrel to assign a fair grade on a restaurant review, let alone swallow an argument in favor of the right to carry a concealed weapon.

Fortunately, Stevie was a smart guy and a very good writer. He did his homework. He did not ignore counterarguments; he addressed them with a level head. As full of bluster as he was in person, his papers were measured in tone and fairly well-researched. He didn’t change my mind about anything, and I did a lot of scribbling in the margins pointing out things he’d missed or failed to address or studies to the contrary. Over all, though, it could not be said that he wasn’t thinking critically, supporting his claims, or writing clearly. He did all of those things, and his grades showed it.

Not long after Stevie finished the composition sequence (I think he took all three courses from me) I had a visit at my office from an FBI agent. He was conducting a background check on a former student who was applying for a job with the Department of Homeland Security. I didn’t even have to ask.

“Let me guess. Stevie Smith?”

“Yes, ma’am. Do you have any reason to believe that Mr. Smith is anything but loyal to the United States of America?”

I almost laughed. Stevie loved America, his little boy, and his girlfriend, in that order. That much I’d read in his papers.

“None whatsoever,” I said.

“Does Mr. Smith have any known enemies?”

Again, I wanted to laugh. The only time he’d missed class was for a custody hearing.

“Does his ex-wife count?” I said, jokingly. The guy didn’t crack a smile.

“We are already aware of his marital situation.”

“No. Not that I know of,” I said, pretending to be chastened.

The guy asked a few more routine questions and went on his way. A few weeks later, I got an email from Stevie telling me he’d been offered the job he’d been coveting for months and thanking me for a good class. And he attached a global warming joke, just for old time’s sake.

December 1, 2011

Rhonda: the addict

I didn’t notice Rhonda for the first couple weeks of the quarter. A middle-aged woman who sat in the back of the room and listened carefully, she rarely participated. One evening after class (we met once a week for three hours, which was grueling enough, let alone that class let out at 9:45pm) she asked if she could speak to me.

She was, she told me, suffering from lupus, and lately had been having some pretty unpleasant symptoms. She held up her fingers, the tips of which were wrapped in bandages.

“My fingertips have split,” she said. “I’m not sleeping very well because of the pain, so if I seem out of it, it’s not you.”

Somehow I resisted screaming “Omigod your FINGERS HAVE SPLIT??? OUCH!!”

Instead, I offered a sympathetic and professional “Thanks for letting me know, Rhonda. If there’s anything you need or if you have to miss class for any reason, just let me know.”

“I will, Ms. Professor,” she said, her voice a little ragged and her huge brown eyes sunken slightly in her face. I wondered how I could have neglected to notice she was ill.

Sure enough, she was gone the next week. And the next. This was about ten years ago, before students communicated with me via email. She never called, and I had no way to reach her. Each time I saw her empty seat, I privately worried that something terrible had happened to her.

When she returned to class, she was like a different person. As tiny and waif-like as she had been, now her stocking cap and thick wool coat nearly swallowed her whole. She shuffled into the classroom, sat in back (as usual) and struggled to stay awake while I spoke. After setting the class to work on a group assignment, I went over to her.

“I’m glad you’re back, Rhonda. I was worried about you.”

She looked at me, her huge eyes glassy, her formerly clear brown skin mottled with gray. When she spoke, her speech was slurred.

“The pain got so bad I finally had to go to the emergency room. The medicine they gave me helped, though. It’s called OxyContin. They use it for cancer patients,” she chuckled, “it’s that strong. But at least now I can sleep at night. I can take care of my babies.”

Her “babies,” I knew, from her introductory paper, were nearly grown men: big, strapping boys of 16 and 18 who played football and adored their Mama. I hoped they were taking care of her.

At the time, I had barely heard of OxyContin. Just a few months earlier, another student had written a paper about this relatively newly available drug and its terribly addictive properties. He worried that it was being used indiscriminately when its original intent had been to treat intractable pain in patients too ill to function anyway, not unlike morphine. He wrote about a black market, about junkies crushing the pills and snorting them, about addicts hooked after a single use, about physicians prescribing it in emergency rooms.

The next week, Rhonda was even more out of it. She approached my desk on a break, and with eyelids at less than half mast, asked me to explain what I had just gone over.

“I’m not sure I understand the assignment,” she murmured, barely intelligible.

I did my best to clarify the details for her, but I could tell she wasn’t getting much. She barely stayed conscious the rest of the evening, then shuffled out the minute class was over.

I stayed behind to answer a few stragglers’ questions and pack up my bag, and just as I was leaving, Rhonda reappeared in the doorway.

“I can’t remember where I parked my car,” she slurred. “Can you help me?”

“You drove here yourself?” I tried not to sound as horrified as I was. I wanted to tell her she was nuts, that she had no business driving, that she was being overmedicated, that she needed help. But instead, I just said, “Why don’t you call one of your sons to come get you?”

“I have the car. They don’t have any way to get here.”

Had this happened now that I’ve been at the same school for 11 years, had it been at a time of day when not every single campus office was closed, had I not had a babysitter at home who had to be home by 10:30, had I been more willing to venture well outside the comfort of my usual boundaries, I would have called her sons or found out where she lived and taken her home myself. Instead, I just said, “Let me walk with you. I’ll help you find your car.”

I knew that there would be a security guard in the parking garage, and sure enough, one of the friendly regulars was there, bundled up to his eyeballs in the frigid February night.

“Sir, this lady needs help finding her car and getting home. Perhaps you can find a campus police officer to help her?” I looked at Rhonda, wondering if she’d be embarrassed, but she was too far gone to care. Then I patted her awkwardly on the arm, told her to be safe, thanked the security guard for his help, and hurried off to my car.

Rhonda never came back to class, but I thought about her all the time. I took to skimming the obits in the local paper, wondering if I’d see her name, and what the cause of death would be: Rhonda Simpkins, age 42, of complications from lupus.

Six months later, I was in the college library with a research class when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Rhonda. I was so happy to see her I almost grabbed her and squeezed her. She looked great. Healthy. Alert.

“It is so good to see you, Rhonda. I was worried about you.”

She told me she had been through rehab and had been clean for a few months. That she had been so badly addicted to OxyContin she’d almost died. That she didn’t remember very well the last time she’d seen me or what happened that night, but she was sorry I’d had to see her that way. That she was reenrolled and starting classes anew. That her boys had been wonderful, and her lupus was under control. I was so relieved I wanted to cry. Then I gave her a hug and she went on her way. I haven’t seen her since.

I never found out what happened that last night she was in my class. I don’t know if her sons came to get her, if campus police took her to the hospital, or if she somehow drove home herself, God forbid. All I know is that I passed her off, and that things turned out okay either in spite of or because of that. That’s good enough for me.

October 3, 2011

Quincy: the gentleman

I’ve said many times that my classes are composed of unlikely combinations of people. Currently, my oldest student is well into his 60’s, my youngest not yet 18. Even as a veteran teacher, it is somewhat daunting for me to presume to teach anything at all to someone twenty years my senior. I know I have something to offer them, but I also know that they have an awful lot on me in terms of wisdom and life experience.

And yet, it is these older students — sometimes those with the least skin in the game — who are the best learners. Sometimes, they’re the best teachers.

Quincy was one such student. But it wasn’t his age that impressed me when I first met him; it was that he was the consummate gentleman. He wore a tie to class every day, and a Fedora. He would doff his hat as he sat down at his desk, perching it neatly on top of his books–a simple act that might have seemed foppish or calculated from someone younger or less elegant than he. He insisted on calling me ma’am, which I found somewhat disconcerting from someone old enough to be my father.

During discussions, Quincy took copious notes on a yellow legal pad in neatly slanted longhand. He listened intently to everything I said–to everything anyone said, and he nodded and sometimes even muttered a “yesss!” or an “uh-huh!” in agreement, as though he were in church. He asked plenty of questions, and I did my best to answer them, even though they were often prefaced by comments so tangential and rambling as to be unintelligible. I’d try to wait politely for him to get to his point, resisting the urge to make a “wind it up” gesture. His classmates sometimes rolled their eyes and glanced impatiently at each other telegraphing “here he goes again” to one another and squirming in their seats.

It’s always a challenge when there’s one student who dominates discussions or gets off topic or compulsively argues. I usually don’t have any trouble steering those people back on course. But for some reason, I found it nearly impossible to do this with Quincy. Moreover, I didn’t want to. He was so eager, so earnest, so genuinely seeking to understand and persuade, I just could’t bring myself to shut him down. Sometimes, he’d turn to his classmates, shake a slender finger, and preach right to them: about commitment, about racism, about hard work and sacrifice. I was not surprised when I found out he had been a minister.

His writing was as discursive and strangely poetic as his speech. When I worked with him on drafts, he’d listen intently and nod. I could tell, even as I spoke, that he often wasn’t following me when I talked about organization and unity and transitions between ideas. His vocabulary was good, and there were these lovely nuggets of wisdom sprinkled throughout his papers. But punctuation was a mystery to him. Trying to get him to write in any way other than stream-of-consciousness proved nearly impossible. I hated putting grades on his papers. I could’t justify anything higher than a C for most of them, so riddled were they with comma splices and nonsequiturs. I cringed inwardly every time I handed one back.

“There are so many wise insights in your papers, Quincy. You always say something I haven’t thought of or make me see something in a new light. But you understand, I have to take writing conventions into account when I grade…” I’d apologize as I showed him his paper, riddled with corrections and question marks and marginal notes in my handwriting.

He’d listen and nod, telling me he understood and not to worry–that he was enjoying the course and learning plenty, and that he wasn’t worried about the grade. Then he’d smile and pat my hand, put his Fedora back on, and tell me to “have a blessed day, Professor.”

I’m not sure Quincy’s classmates always appreciated him. I’m sure many of them thought of him as an eccentric old man, but I hope they listened to him, too. If they had been more patient, they might have noticed that there was another, wiser teacher in the room.

August 27, 2011

Pete: the kid

It will make me sound like a fossil to say this, but I can’t always tell how old my students are. Everyone under 25 looks like a high school kid. What I did not know when I first started teaching community college is that some of them actually are. In high school, that is.

A couple of programs in our state allow kids to get a start on their college degrees and earn high school credits at the same time. It’s a great option for students who, for whatever reason, are not thriving in a traditional environment. Most of the kids who exercise this option are not the overachievers you might be imagining. They are not always super-bright kids whose academic needs are not being met by secondary education. Sometimes — maybe usually — they are kids who are just “done” with high school. They may be bored, at risk for dropping out, or balking against authority. Some are just kids who do better with more autonomy and a less rigid schedule.

Pete was one of these kids, but I wasn’t aware of it until I’d known him for a month or two. He was ridiculously tall and thin, well over six feet but probably 140 pounds sopping wet. He had nearly white skin and orange hair — not I’m-a-rebellious-youth dyed hair, but naturally bright orange. He was the reddest redhead I’d ever seen.

And he was a terrific writer. Funny. Insightful. Mature.

I learned just how young he was the day we were discussing topics for argument essays. There are many subjects I prohibit, some because I know I can’t be objective grading them, and some because I would rather gouge my eyeballs out with my own red pen than grade another paper about them. Two topics that fall into the latter category are favorites of the under-21 boy crowd: lowering the drinking age and legalization of marijuana. No matter how much they beg, I will not budge on this.

So Pete took another tack.

“Ok, how about this,” he said during our conference. “How about I write a letter to my mom persuading her to let me smoke pot?”

“Come again?”

“My mom is all over me about smoking weed. I want to make a deal with her to get her off my back. As long as I keep my job, keep my grades up, and stay out of trouble, it shouldn’t be any of her business if I get high.”

“Um, Pete?”

“What?”

“It’s illegal.”

He rolled his eyes. “I know! But you won’t let me write about how stupid that is. Man. I thought you’d be cool about this, but you sound just like her.”

I laughed. “How old are you?”

“Seventeen.”

“How old is your mom?”

“Too old to be cool about this.”

“How old is too old?”

“Pffft. Forty.”

At the time, I was forty, too. If this similarity occurred to him (or if it was a deliberate jab) he didn’t let on. Just as I thought everyone under 25 looked young, he probably deemed everyone over 30 ancient. I sighed.

We talked through the various pitfalls of the paper, how he’d make his claims, how he’d address her concerns and counterarguments. Even though it felt strange giving a teenager a platform to convince his mother to let him break the law (no matter how pointless and ineffectual) and endanger his own health, I let him write it.

And of course, it was funny, charming, superbly written, and quite convincing. I gave him an A.

“You know what?” I said to him when I handed it back to him. “If I were your mom, I wouldn’t be convinced. And you don’t get to use your grade as ammo.”

He laughed. “No worries. I’m never going to win this one, but it was fun to write.”

It was fun to read, too. I doubt he ever made any headway with his mom, but since he went on to take two more classes from me and transfer to a university with a 4.0, I think he’s probably doing just fine.

June 29, 2011

Olivia: the basket case

“Ok, I have all my sources for the research paper. Now, what’s due next time?”

Olivia had stayed behind to ask this question despite the fact that I had spent the last twenty minutes of class explaining that very thing.

“The research proposal is due next time, Olivia. You shouldn’t be gathering sources until your proposal has been approved.”

“What’s the research proposal?” She looked at me blankly.

“The short paper I just assigned. Just now.”

“So we’re not supposed to be conducting research for a research paper?” she said accusingly, looking at me through narrowed eyes and brushing aside the lock of hair that perpetually hung over one of them.

“Of course you are–just not yet.”

An exchange like this one happened nearly every time Olivia came to my twice-a-week class. She made it most days, but almost never without being 15 or 20 minutes late. She made a lot of racket coming in, and noisily settled herself at her computer. If I was speaking when she came in, she would go straight to her seat, but if the class happened to be working on something, she’d come up to the front of the room where I was seated at the instructor’s podium and start in on an elaborate explanation — always in full voice and peppered with way too much personal information. She spoke entirely in run ons and nonsequiturs.

“My son woke up this morning with welts all over his legs we’re pretty sure it’s bedbugs so we’re going to have to move out while the exterminator fumigates the place but my mom just got evicted so we can’t go to her house and my boyfriend isn’t exactly on speaking terms with his family so I have no idea where we’re going to be living over the next week or so so I’m not sure what I’m going to do about getting my school work done and my car is in the shop and my boyfriend can’t drive because his license is suspended so I may have to bring my son to school with me next week if I can even get a ride because we can’t really afford daycare and we can’t be in the house with the bedbugs so it’s going to be sort of a weird week.”

I waited for her to take a breath, nodding sympathetically and trying divine one single piece of information that was at all relevant to her performance in my class.

“Sorry you’re having such a tough week. How can I help you?”

It is not unusual for my students to need a break now and then, when their families, jobs, transportation issues and health interfere with their schoolwork, but Olivia needed one every single week. More frustrating, though, was that she never, and I mean never, paid attention in class. She was always hard at work, her keyboard clacking loudly, but she was always doing the wrong assignment, the next assignment, or the assignment that was due the day before.

“Olivia,” I said one day, exasperated, “you have got to start paying attention to what’s going on in class. If you will just stay with us, you’ll be fine. Reading ahead to figure out where we’re going isn’t helping you. If you get too far ahead, you’re going to have to redo a bunch of your work. It doesn’t make sense to do research before you have hammered out your question. Trust the process.”

Or, that’s what I wanted to say. In the course of my plea, she interrupted me at least three times. “But I don’t have a computer at home. But I already know my topic. But I already know how to do that.” You get the picture.

I’m not a my-way-or-the-highway kind of teacher, and if I had thought Olivia were equipped to go it alone, I probably could have tolerated her refusal to conform to my schedule. But she wasn’t. She was obviously bright and curious, but her writing was a mess — often tumbling out in the same haphazard stream of consciousness her speech did. I found it nearly impossible to communicate with her.

Other students started to notice her, too. They were annoyed by her tardiness and by the fact that I would frequently have to interrupt class to ask her to stop typing when I or one of her classmates was speaking. When she did participate in discussions, her contributions were often overly personal reactions to the material that derailed the conversation. In short, she was exhausting.

The day she insisted she was going to write her term paper her own way, I finally had enough:

“Olivia. Stop,” I said. “Stop talking. Listen to me. I am the one who is grading your paper. I am the one who designed the assignment. If your paper does not meet the course objectives, you won’t get a passing grade. Do you understand that?”

This pulled her up short. She looked at me, again with narrowed eyes, her thin face pinched. Finally, she sighed.

“Well, okay,” she said, and turned on her heel.

Apparently, something had finally sunk in. She managed to get through with a C. Her final paper was really quite well-researched and informative, if a bit disorganized. Still, I was somewhat relieved to see her go.

And then she turned up in my lit class not two weeks later. It was not a course required for many majors, so I was surprised to see her there. And I wondered why, when she had been so disdainful of all my pesky requirements, she’d take another class from me.

The first day, she approached me when class was over.

“Are we really going to need the book?”

“Well, it’s a lit class and the book is an anthology. I don’t see how you can get by without it,” I said as good naturedly as I was able.

“Well, I’m on financial aid and I can’t really afford it.”

“Oh, well, you can probably get away without it for a week or so, but as soon as you get your money you’re going to need to buy it. In the meantime, I might be able to get you a loaner.

“Oh, no. That’s not the problem. I got my financial aid check. I just can’t afford to spend it on books. My boyfriend just lost his job and it turns out it wasn’t bedbugs but fleas and my son is allergic and scratched so much he got an infection so we had to get an antibiotic and we don’t have health insurance and we have to get rid of our dog…”

I didn’t have the energy to explain that using financial aid funds for personal living expenses was fraudulent. I knew she wouldn’t listen. And as it turned out, the point was moot. She didn’t make it very long this time. She showed up to class with her visibly ill toddler one day. Once her boyfriend actually stuck his head in the door of the classroom and said he needed to see her “right now.” By the end of the third week of the quarter, she had disappeared.

Olivia seemed to live in a constant state of crisis and upheaval that probably just overwhelmed her. And while I was relieved to get her through one class, I was sorry when she disappeared entirely from the second one. I had hoped she might persevere — that one class at a time, one crisis at a time, she might get herself out of whatever mess she was in. But sometimes, chaos wins.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 767 other followers